Big Tree's Bamboo Factory

If you think your favorite Fair Trade, organic chocolate is the most sustainable it can get, meet Benjamin Ripple. He’s the founder of Big Tree Farms Bali, and his chocolate is made in a factory built virtually entirely out of bamboo. Yes, the stuff pandas eat. Ben’s the visionary behind the revolutionary company sourcing Fair Trade and sustainable ingredients like coconut palm sugar, cacao nibs and raw cashews from more than 13,000 small family farmers throughout Indonesia. And his latest achievement is the world’s first chocolate factory made out of the world’s most sustainable building material. We caught up with Ben to hear about the factory and just what makes Big Tree Farms chocolate the best in the world.

[This article is edited for length and clarity.]

OrganicAuthority: How did the idea for a bamboo factory come about?

Benjamin Ripple: Three years ago, Frederick [that's Frederick Schilling, founder of Dagoba Organic Chocolate] and I began trying to find a new space to renovate/retrofit in order to suit our needs for manufacturing, and to serve as a HQ for Big Tree. After two years, it became clear that really there were no suitable sites available in Bali. A very close friend named Aldo Landwehr had planted the seed of a bamboo building in our minds two years previous, and his tragic death had brought his vision back. We began to consider the “what-if” of building from bamboo. Frederick and I decided to follow our hearts over our heads, and our “Bamboo Cathedral” is the result of this decision.

OA: Are there other structures in Bali made from bamboo?

BR: Bali is fast becoming the focal point of a global trend towards pure and integrated bamboo buildings. There have been a few individuals who, for the past twenty years, have been laying the foundation for this evolution: Linda Garland of the International Bamboo Foundation in Ubud; John Hardy (currently the CEO of PT Bambu and the visionary behind the idea for the Green School); Aldo Landwehr, an incredibly talented designer who pushed bamboo into new forms and functions; Pak Kantor (our artisan head builder and an incredible bamboo carpenter) are a few.

OA: Is using bamboo as a building material a sustainable model outside of the jungle environment, like in colder climates?

BR: Yes… by all means an emphatic YES! Bamboo grows in both tropical and temperate climes. While not all varieties are acceptable for structural building, all can be used for various aspects of construction, and all are incredibly sustainable. Bamboo is the fastest growing building material on the planet and is a net sink of carbon (an important benefit when bamboo is compared to other building materials). There are quite a few bamboo architects and building groups in the U.S. and elsewhere.

OA: Nice! And the bamboo factory is now manufacturing the world’s first truly raw cacao powder and butter, known for a number of health benefits. How does your product differ from all the other raw chocolates on the market that boast superior nutrition?

BR: Without getting drawn too far down the rabbit-hole, let’s just say that transparency is currently the only “verification” the raw/superfood community can offer to ensure the integrity of products marketed as “functional.” It seems odd and against logic NOT to offer independent verification for these goods, especially considering the great cost premiums that many of these items have at retail. At this point, only Big Tree Farms has consistently offered an open door policy for all our sites and supply chains.

There are a myriad of other characteristics that set our chocolate products apart from other goods available in the market, too. ALL our raw chocolate is produced using only coconut palm nectar as the sweetener. Coconut palm nectar is without a doubt the oldest, “new” and exciting ingredient to hit the world market. While we’ve been working with this sweetener for almost eight years, it has been around for 6,000 or more, making it the oldest sweetener on earth. It is low-glycemic and contains higher nutrients than any other sweetener. And it tastes incredible. The flavor of coconut palm nectar marries perfectly with the wild “green” earthiness of raw cacao and the end result is sublime, easy-going and physically mood altering (it puts a wide grin on your face!).

OA: Big Tree Farms is also producing a lot of other unique items sourced from thousands of farmers in the region. How does that work? What are some of the exciting products we should know about?

BR: Big Tree Farms runs and operates one of—if not the most— transparent and socially equitable small farmer supply chains in the world. We are based in the country of origin where we develop direct supply chains in conjunction with international NGOs, governmental and non-governmental agencies such as USAID and the IFC. We have won awards and grants for our farmer partnerships from governmental organizations and private institutions. We have increased farmers’ incomes on an average of 25-30% across all of our supply chains. We are beyond Fair Trade; we are Direct Trade Development. At present, we work directly with almost 13,000 farmers through our organic management programs across the Indonesian Archipelago. As testament to the viability of these programs, the numbers of newly associated farmers are rising rapidly. It has taken us over five years of supply chain systems development and trial, but we now have a proprietary system that is both replicable and scalable across many varying geographic, social and market scenarios.

We’re most excited about Coconut Palm Sugar, CocoHydro coconut water powder and of course our Raw Chocolate. CocoHydro is pure coconut water, without the water. The coconut water industry is blowing out all metrics as it soars higher and higher in the world market, but with that growth comes a tremendous amount of waste. With CocoHydro we have figured out how to reduce the footprint of coconut water by getting rid of the 98% water and simply retaining the 2% remaining nutrients that are so critical for rehydration and energy. Each 275 gram pouch of CocoHydro contains on average the water from 25 coconuts… Just scoop a spoonful into a glass of spring water, mix, and enjoy rehydrated coconut water.

We’re also super excited about our new line of Truly Raw Ingredients which will include our Super-Charged cacao products (beans, nibs, sweet nibs, butter, powder and paste) as well as our cold-processed cashews (which are the sweetest cashews on earth!) and a number of other new and exciting traditional superfoods from the Indonesian Archipelago!

OA: Where can people find BTF products?

BR: The peeps should look for BTF products at retail through Whole Foods Markets, Market of Choice, New Seasons, Wegman’s and other retail outlets. Alternately, they can find our goods by shopping from BTF directly online at our website www.bigtreefarms.com.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Big Tree Farms